Now underway, NFL investigation will be sweeping, exhaustive
As the NFL begins its investigation into the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin case, Jason La Canfora examines what questions will be under the microscope, including the reaction of the team.
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Special counsel Ted Wells, who is investigating issues of alleged verbal abuse and workplace harassment toward Dolphins players and tackle Jonathan Martin, already began interviewing some close to the situation last week and will be in California in the coming days to interview Martin and others. The interviews are likely to be ongoing for several weeks, sources said, with the results presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell and also made public.
Guard Richie Incognito, who was suspended by the team after it learned of transcripts of text messages and voice mails he sent Martin, is also in California, seeking counsel and support from his agent, David Dunn, whose agency is based in Irvine.
Wells, according to sources, has a lengthy list of interview subjects and plans to be meticulous and diligent as he probes broader issues besides just the inter-personal dynamics between Martin and Incogntio, including the larger locker room culture there, how pervasive issues of bullying and harassment might be, and what role, if any the coaching staff, management, and ownership may have played -- implicit or complicit -- in the team’s handling and control of workplace issues.
Martin already turned over evidence of Incognito calling him a “half-n----r” and making threats at him and family members and Martin’s lawyer, David Cornwell released a statement Thursday night which includes language from a text invoking a sexual act toward Martin’s sister, and, furthermore, Cornwell alleged there was an incident of physical abuse toward Martin as well. A source said that incident in question took place in 2012, Martin’s rookie season, away from the team facility, but that it was witnessed by Dolphins players.
The league office is taking the matter incredibly seriously and league sources said that, pending Wells’ findings, it could result in new changes to protocols or certain language in the league’s code of conduct and workplace safety regulations. Some believe that, given the broad scope that Wells is applying to the matter, individuals like Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland could face particular scrutiny, and Wells will be very interested in determining how much the Dolphins knew or did not know, how much they perhaps should have known and if those in power in any way fostered an environment that may have allowed things to fester.
Some within the league office are interested as to whether Stephen Ross, whose tenure as owner has been pocked by unusual situations -- attempting to hire a head coach before he had fired his, for instance, and with Ireland asking Dez Bryant during a pre-draft interview if his mother was a prostitute -- is in any way negligent as well. Ross is something of an absentee owner -- spending quite a bit of time in New York where his business interests remain -- and numerous league sources have pointed to a leadership chasm in the organization, with some unsure of the chain of command on given matters, and swaying factions.
Even the team’s delayed and unusual approach to Martin’s departure will be probed, sources said, as for nearly a week the Dolphins made almost no comment on the matter, had limited contact with Martin or his representatives and made no attempt on their own to determine what was going on until finally asking the NFL to intervene after the racially offensive texts were presented to them last Sunday, six days after Martin left. Is that indicative of larger cultural issues there or a lack of institutional control? How much instruction, if any, did Incognito and other veterans receive from the coaches in regards to “toughening up” Martin.
Other questions that will be examined:
- Did players have ample resources available and had the Dolphins established sufficient protocols so that a player in distress might feel comfortable asking for help?
- Should Martin’s position coaches, at the very least, had an indication of what was going on among the players they coach.
- Should Ireland and coach Joe Philbin have been more inclined to aid Martin once they did become aware of his distressed mental state?
- Should the team’s player engagement department have been more involved and did the organization sufficient hire and empower them to be in position to act as a liaison between Martin and the club?
- Why wasn’t more effort made to reach out to Martin immediately following his departure?
- How widespread and accepted is it for white players on the team to use the N-word and direct it toward African-American teammates?
- Were the Dolphins veterans putting undue or unusual pressure on rookies to pay for dinners and trips in a manner outside of the norm of NFL locker rooms?
Sources said that while Ireland did not instruct Martin’s agent that his client should punch Incognito, as has been reported, he did inquire as to why, if bullying was going on, wouldn’t Martin have tried to handle it physically himself. How would that reflect on the Dolphins if Wells concludes that was the case?
If you recall in the investigation into the Saints during “Bountygate,” there was a definite focus at the macro-level as to why certain things were allowed to persist, and, in the end, fines and loss of draft picks spoke to larger organizational culpability, besides the strict suspensions Goodell feted out. Furthermore, the team ended up receiving severe discipline at least in part because of an initial reluctance to participate, and in these cases any hint of a cover-up or unwillingness to honestly participate in the process if always frowned upon.
Ultimately, within the league office some hope this serves as a wake-up call of sorts to Ross to learn from his mistakes, clean up his building and put an infrastructure in place that will help return this once-model franchise to where it used to be. This is an opportunity for the NFL to perhaps steer them in that direction and begin to right what has been a turbulent ownership tenure, and I doubt that’s an opportunity that they let pass, assuming Wells uncovers any hint of organizational dysfunction or negligence in this matter, which has now become an international news story reflected poorly upon most all of those involved and bringing no shortage of scrutiny upon the league as a whole.
Incognito has yet to file a grievance on his suspension but is likely to do so at some point according to sources. But, given that he can be suspended a maximum of four weeks (plus on paycheck under the collective bargaining agreement), there is no rush to file anything and no need to do so. As a practical matter, he will eventually be seeking to recoup money he lost for missed paychecks and thus doing so now, after one week, is hardly imperative, In the meantime the investigation continues, Martin continues to undergo treatment in California, and the Dolphins will try to beat the winless Buccaneers on Monday night in Tampa, with the team still very much in the hunt in the AFC playoff race.
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